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Lady Margaret

Legendary songstress Margaret Whiting on her return to cabaret, the Great American Songbook, and election madness.

By New York City
Margaret Whiting is musical royalty, no doubt about it. The daughter of the great songwriter Richard Whiting, she attained extraordinary popularity as a singer in the 1940s and '50s, earning 12 (twelve!) gold records for her smooth-as-silk renditions of "Moonlight in Vermont," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "That Old Black Magic" and other pop standards. Later, she had leading roles in touring productions of Gypsy, Call Me Madam, and Pal Joey. For more than a decade, Whiting worked with such other legendary ladies as Rosemary Clooney and Helen O'Connell as part of the traveling show "Four Girls Four." And, just a few seasons ago, she was on Broadway in the Johnny Mercer musical revue Dream.

At the moment, Ms. W. is preparing for her first solo cabaret gig in several years: A Very Special Evening with Margaret Whiting, set for December 21 (one night only!) at Arci's Place. And she's looking forward to another summer as a master teacher of the cabaret symposium at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. My TheaterMania phone interview with Whiting took place the day after the Supreme Court decided to allow George W. Bush to become President of the United States.

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TM: How's everything, Margaret?

WHITING: Everything's good. I'm getting ready for Christmas--though it's been kind of hard to get in the mood, with everything that's going on.

TM: You're talking about the election situation?

WHITING: Yes. That was a drag for everybody, I think. Especially the stockbrokers! I guess people feel better today.

TM: Well, we probably don't want to spend too much time talking politics. Tell me about your show at Arci's Place.

WHITING: I've been doing theater and concerts lately, but I haven't performed in a nightclub in two or three years. John Miller, who owns Arci's, is a friend of mine, and he asked me to fill in for Lillias White on the 21st; she has another commitment that night. One thing I'm excited about is our guest singer. For about 12 years now, I've taught at the O'Neill Cabaret Symposium, and I found a very clever man there this summer: Paul Bernhardt. He's a wonderful jazz singer--but, as I got to know him, I realized that he can sing anything. And he's funny and charming. So I said to him, "Come on, we're going to do this show at Arci's together." A star is born!

TM: There's certainly a lot of talent to be found at the O'Neill. I sat in on the symposium a few years ago.

WHITING: Yes, I remember. Wasn't that fun? We really have good people there. It's a wonderful adventure. I think that, of all the entertainment media, cabaret is the first one that people should learn, because it gets them up in front of an audience and teaches them how to show us who they really are. If someone is good in cabaret, they're singing not only to you, but for you.

TM: I always like to ask artists of your era how they feel about the current state of pop music. What wisdom do you have for those of us who are in despair over the fact that the Great American Songbook has been supplanted by rap, etc.?

WHITING: Well, I'm the head of the Johnny Mercer Foundation, and we try to do things for kids so they can learn that the great old songs are part of their heritage. Those songs have been around for years, and they're still being used all the time in movies and commercials. One of the great things about cabaret is that most of the people who sing there go for the older songs; you seldom hear anybody sing something new, unless it's by a very classy writer.

TM: I guess it's not simply a matter of "old" vs. "new." People like John Bucchino and Craig Carnelia are writing terrific songs that have a contemporary feel but also offer something substantial in terms of melody and lyrics.

WHITING: The Mercer Foundation has concerts that we do all the time with great new songwriters, and you've just mentioned two of them. We also have people like Ann Hampton Callaway. We get the best! As for the classic songs, I think young people can learn to appreciate them. But they have to be taught, the songs have to be heard, so people have to keep recording them. I think it may turn around. Some of the new groups, the boy bands, are singing arrangements with the kind of harmonies you used to hear from the Hi-Los or The Four Freshmen. It's amazing. And, as I said, almost every commercial today--whether it's for peanut butter or paper towels--uses an old song. They change the lyrics, but there's a reason why they use that kind of music. Newer songs are hard to hear, hard to listen to. You know, when I was a child, people like Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren, Arthur Schwartz, and Harold Arlen would come to visit my father and play these great songs that they'd written. I'd have to look very hard to find something as good as that, but I find that the best songs being written today--by people like Bucchino, Craig [Carnelia], and David Friedman--are written for cabaret.

TM: How about the singers who are currently popular. Do you have any favorites?

WHITING: Strangely enough, I love Ricky Martin. He's a great performer, magnificent. Even though he's a young man, he's someone who's been in the business for a long time and learned the profession.

TM: Maybe you could tell me a little bit more about what you're planning for your show at Arci's. I don't believe I'm familiar with your musical director, Don Rebic.

WHITING: He plays for Karen Akers. He was out with us in a show we did, a jazz version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

TM: I heard a few things about that, but I didn't get to see it. Was it a musical or a concert?

WHITING: It really turned out to be a musical in concert. John Pizzarelli was in it. The last time we did it, we toured the glorious state of Florida, but we went all over the country. It was fun! Don Rebic is a great guy and a wonderful musician.

TM: Can you give me any specifics on the repertoire you're working up for Arci's?

WHITING: It's kind of supposed to be a surprise...but we'll be doing "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "My Foolish Heart." And, of course, we'll do "That Old Black Magic," because that's my signature song.

TM: I thought your signature song was "Moonlight in Vermont."

WHITING: Actually, I have about 10 of them--but I'm not going to drag them all out!


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